Maybe I’m Just Simple, Real, and Human After All

My title is a sentence Ad Reinhardt wrote toward the end of one of his writings called “The Artist in Search of an Academy, Part Two: Who are the Artists?” It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday. I’m thinking of everyone who can’t be with me this morning, listening to the Laudate psalms on iTunes, making tea, and writing this here about Robert Lax and Ad Reinhardt (who can’t be with us), art and people (who are with us), art and art (perhaps), and art—where does it come from, what does it know (at any point during this I may walk out of my apartment in New York—Allen and Houston—and have a walk to take a look).

Robert Lax. Photo by Ad Reinhardt, 1958. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

The poet Robert Lax and Ad Reinhardt met in the 1930s as undergraduates at Columbia University. What interests me about their close and lifelong friendship, other than the obvious creative force of the poet and the painter sharing similar concerns and finding each other in one lifetime, is the impersonal way in which their work wrestles with the most personal and serious questions. Here’s one.

How do we live in reality (why do we live in reality)?
How do we live in reality (why do we live in reality)?
How do we live in reality (why do we live in reality)?

For me this is a spiritual question (for Lax it may have been a Catholic one, a Jewish one—he explored both religions at different times—certainly a mystical one—for Reinhardt it may have had to do with form, in how form is a disciplined devotion faithful to wrestling with the unknowable). It’s also a question that flits through my mind when reading many of Lax’s poems (though especially his 1962 collection, New Poems, and 1981’s Nights & Days), and a question that Reinhardt’s black paintings point to (though they may not point anywhere specifically—for me, they’ve always seemed activated by the viewer’s own unconscious, fears, fantasies). It’s a question that, in any case, is central to my life as a poet today.

I’m not sure what reality is or why it’s here. Similarly, I’m not sure what art is or why it has to do with us. I think these are two more concerns Lax and Reinhardt think through in their work, and respond to differently. Looking through scans of Reinhardt’s personal writings on art, in a folder he labeled “Art-as-Art Dogma,” on a sheet of notes, he’s typed out the following: “Art comes from art alone, always, everywhere, never from life, reality, nature, earth, or heaven. Art has only its own formal problems and attentions. Visions, images, symbols, representations, sensations, impulses.” Suddenly we find ourselves in another world. This is where Reinhardt has taken us. A world with its own rules and allegiances, a world divorced from ours, though surely we need to be in this one as Reinhardt was and you and I are, to perceive or imagine the other.

In the 1985 exhibition catalog for Reinhardt’s Timeless Painting, Lax writes:

I’m beginning to think
r was wrong

not r, but an idea i had
of him that i practically
worshipped

that said life was the
opposite of art

& art was the opposite
of life

& proud of it

but i think life
has something 
to do with art

& it’s just a matter
of finding

the special point

at which the
two of them
get together.

And I have to tell you, at this point I’d rather be having dinner with Reinhardt and Lax instead of writing this. Because art-making in my mind is haunted by this “special point,” where what we know (our lives) and what we don’t know (what art attempts to give shape to, not fill in) meet, or maybe not, perhaps they touch or glance or mimic one another’s difference. Both of these artists dedicated a huge part of their lives to giving shape to the unknowable. What I find radical and moving about Lax’s poetry is his commitment to the repetition of a limited number of words, when a poet could use many (the first poem in New Poems consists of the usage of only 7 different words), and often times words that are signifiers for the most ineffable of human experiences or impulses: “death,” “never,” “is,” “yes,” “no”—Lax fills entire pages in New Poems with only these words—over and over, one after the other. As much as these poems are thinking about form (his focus on the column rather than the line), and may be conceptually driven, they’re mantras obsessed with the reality that we have been thrown into bodies, put under a sky (another word—“sky”— which Lax fills the page with), and given time—Time—to contend with. That’s what I felt and couldn’t say when I first looked at one of Reinhardt’s black paintings in New York, in the summer of 2008, at an exhibition the Guggenheim called “Imageless: The Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting.” Time. Reality. Life. What is that. What is that. What is that. And this is what it feels like looking at a Reinhardt black painting now, in 2013 (this is my favorite Lax poem, from New Poems):

the first goodbye
the second goodbye
the third goodbye
the fourth goodbye
the fifth goodbye
the seventh goodbye
the eighth goodbye
the ninth goodbye
the tenth goodbye
the eleventh goodbye
the twelfth goodbye
the hundred & twenty-first goodbye
the hundred & forth-fourth goodbye
the hundred & eighty-ninth goodbye
goodbye
goodbye
goodbye

Contributor

Alex Dimitrov

ALEX DIMITROV is the author of Together and by Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), Begging for It (Four Way Books, 2013), and the digital chapbook American Boys (2012). He lives in New York City.

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